Renee Zellweger’s performance prevents ‘Judy’ from being forgettable biopic

Judy does what most good biopics do, focusing on a particular period of the subject’s life, rather than try to fit an entire life and career into a two-hour story. 

There are flashbacks that show what Judy Garland endured as a young girl, trying to please those who wanted to make her a star at the cost of any sort of normal childhood. Those sequences presume that you know about Garland and her career, which doesn’t seem particularly unreasonable if you’re seeing this movie. If you know Judy Garland was in The Wizard of Oz, that’s probably all you need to get by here. 

The movie follows Garland at what turned out to be the end of her life, the events leading up to her five-week run of shows in London, where she was still considered a star and played to sold-out houses. In Hollywood, her career was virtually over, she was broke and homeless, unable to provide for her two young children.

A childhood of stage mothers and predatory producers — feeding her diet pills and not letting her eat to keep her weight down — carried over into an adulthood during which she was addicted to drugs and starved herself to stay thin. Poor judgment and decisions led her to five marriages, the last of which occurred during her stay in London to a musician and supposed entrepreneur who saw Garland as a ticket to wealth and fame. 

But Garland always had that talent — that voice — which drew people to her and made them love her. Zellweger portrays that star power on stage, grabbing your attention by impressively belting out songs like “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “The Trolley Song” and “Over the Rainbow.” Yes, she really sings here. No lip-synching. Take that, Rami Malek. These are easily the best parts of the movie, the reason you’d want to see this.

Off-stage, Zellweger loses herself in the mannerisms of Garland, seemingly becoming her without doing an impersonation or becoming a caricature. She seems to physically shrink when she’s not performing, and the weight of her pain and failures seem unyielding. Whatever’s plaguing her, she just can’t beat it. 

Judy isn’t a great movie and suffers when it has to be a melodramatic biopic, especially in scenes with Finn Whitrock, who plays Garland’s fifth and final husband, Mickey Deans.

(By the way, I’m eventually going to become an old man — well, I’m already an old man, but when I exceed middle age — who just yells out names in the theater when I finally recognize someone whose name I couldn’t remember. I almost did that when I saw Judy. “Finn Whitrock”! “Rufus Sewell”! Yep, it’s gonna happen.) 

But Zellweger is great, and to me her performance felt even more welcome taking into consideration that this is something of a comeback role for her after a decade out of the harsh, plastic surgery speculating, spotlight. It’s goofy at times, but Zellweger isn’t afraid to go there.

If you didn’t know much about Judy Garland before seeing this movie, you’ll probably be intrigued about what was a pretty sad life and want to learn more afterwards. Those who love Garland or don’t mind the standard nature of this biopic will probably like this one more than I did.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

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